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Vapor Trails

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★★★★☆
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  • Really 3.5 stars… With the release of _Vapor Trails_, Canadian progressive rock masters Rush have reinvented themselves once again. Never content to simply rely on constantly reusing a single formula to achieve their artistic expression, not to mention their incredible commercial success, guitarist Alex Lifeson, bassist/vocalist/erstwhile keyboardist Geddy Lee and drummer/lyricist Neil Peart have returned to the standard power trio format that put them on the map in the mid-1970’s, with perhaps their heaviest album ever._Vapor Trails_, Rush’s 17th studio release in 18 years and the band’s first studio release since 1996’s _Test for Echo_, was received by fans with great expectation, and some mixed reviews. More than anything, the long layoff was due to personal hardships endured by drummer Neil Peart who lost his wife to cancer and his daughter to a fatal car accident within about a year of one another. Peart was so devastated by the loss of his family that this consummate drummer, who is widely renowned for his work ethic, did not pick up a drumstick for something like two years.After Peart had recovered sufficiently from these losses, the band began writing new material, primarily by sharing tapes with one another, with a “no pressure/expectations” attitude that the process would either result in an album or not. In interviews, members of the band have stated that until a certain point, well into the writing process, the band’s future was still undecided. In the course of working out the material, Geddy Lee’s keyboards, which had grown from sparse use on 1977’s _A Farwell to Kings_, and evolved into a dominant aspect of the bands sound by the early 1990’s, were abandoned. This lack of keys and the songwriting, brought about in large part by Peart’s hardship and his largely solitary reconstruction of himself, are, I think the two primary things that lend to Rush’s most guitar-driven, visceral and emotionally open album to date.Personally, I think that the 13 tunes offered here easily stand up to the vast majority of mass-marketed drivel that constitutes today’s popular music scene. (Yeah, I am opinionated.) From the frenzied opening double kick-drum/distorted guitar onslaught of “One Little Victory” to the jangly and popish “How It Is” and on to the brilliantly written, building “Secret Touch,” Rush – the band that, along with Yes, King Crimson, ELP and a handful of others put prog rock on the map – delivers an assortment of well written tunes, brilliantly executed by a trio of virtuoso rock musicians. I honestly don’t think many will like all 13 cuts on this album (personally, I’m not that fond of “Ghost Rider” and “Freeze”), but I would guess that most Rush fans would end up liking at least 8 to 10 songs.The following might be more info than you want to bother with, but people have brought up the album’s sound quality. I agree that it is an issue and this is just an attempt to explain what I think is going on…Sonically, the problem with _VT_ is that it is mastered too loud. (Mastering is the process wherein the finished stereo mixes: receive final equalization, as well as, relative and overall level adjustment, are ordered, track gaps and crossfades set, etcetera.) Recent years have seen breakthrough technology emerge in the world of digital audio, which, among other things has revolutionized digital compression and “brickwall limiting” (the two most common techniques for increasing the average level of audio program material, and therefore, perceived volume of a CD). This, in turn, has made albums louder and louder each year in contest that began about a decade ago.For better or for worse, this album was not mastered by any of the gurus of the trade (like Bob Ludwig or Bernie Grundman to name a couple) and I think it suffers for it. There are plenty of albums that are as loud as _VT_, and a few that are even louder, but many of them sound a lot better. The compression artifacts from the signal level processing, not to mention some poor final EQ choices (the exact problems) are absurdly evident to the trained ear, and sound bad to most people, whether or not they have the audio engineering experience to identify them with precision. I think it is really fair to say that the mastering job on this album is the easily one of the worst I’ve heard on a significant major label release…ever!Rush are veterans of the studio, and Paul Northfield is a talented and experienced producer and audio engineer. Both have turned out consistently high quality recordings over long careers and it’s not likely that these mixes were mediocre product. Honestly, it is actually not possible to objectively judge the mixes that came out of the studio once they have been mastered. A skilled mastering engineer can turn mediocre mixes into outstanding final product and, clearly, that level of technology, in the wrong hands, can destroy a fine recording. I think that is what has happened here. (This is likely the result of pressure from the label in an attempt to position the album to compete for the dollars of the younger segment of Rush’s fan base, who generally listen to new, loud CD’s.)Poor sonics notwithstanding, with _VT_, Rush has made a powerful, personal and appropriate musical statement a time in the band’s history that represents a definite personal and career crossroads. While it may not be their best ever, _VT_ is a very good album by an excellent band that has deservedly earned a place in history as one of the greatest progressive rock bands ever. It’s really a shame it doesn’t sound better…PS – if you are new to the band you might prefer one of their definitive classics: _2112_, _A Farewell to Kings_, _Hemispheres_, _Permanent Waves_, and/or _Moving Pictures_.

    Posted on January 2, 2010